Utah's strict liquor laws might get stricter

Associated Press/January 25, 2008

Salt Lake City - When Gov. Jon Huntsman took office, he said Utah should loosen its notoriously strict liquor laws by considering selling wine in grocery stores and ending a requirement that people have a membership to enter a bar.

Four years later, those laws haven't changed; the state liquor board is controlled by teetotalers, and Utah is on the verge of becoming the only state in the country to ban the sale of flavored, sweet malt beverages from its grocery stores.

Proponents of loosening liquor laws keep running into opposition from the most influential political force in the state - the Mormon church.

"I'm not naive. I've been up there a long time and when the LDS church weighs in, it carries a lot of weight both with LDS legislators and non-LDS legislators. They tend to listen," said Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, which is fighting the proposal.

The church issued a statement this month, saying that "to allow the sale of distilled spirits in grocery and convenience stores promotes underage drinking and undermines the state system of alcohol control."

While about 60 percent of Utahns are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, about 90 percent of legislators are Mormon, as is the attorney general, lieutenant governor and Huntsman.

Huntsman is a popular, moderate Republican _ up for re-election _ who tends to shy away from ruffling feathers on controversial issues. He has said he will wait until a second term before pursuing any changes in state liquor laws and won't consider whether the drinks, dubbed "alco-pops," should only be sold in liquor stores until the Legislature passes a bill.

The church rarely involves itself with political issues, but makes its position known on what it considers moral issues. Typically, Mormon lawmakers vote with the church.

The church successfully fought proposals to ease liquor restrictions in Utah before the 2002 Winter Olympics, helped kill a flat tax proposal on the grounds it would discourage people from tithing, joined other faiths in seeking a constitutional ban on gay marriage and excommunicated a member who testified in Congress in support of the 1972 version of the Equal Rights Amendment.

While Mormons dominate nearly every aspect of Utah culture, few issues highlight the state's cultural divide like the Legislature's treatment of liquor laws.

When Bobbie Coray, a Mormon member of the state liquor board, suggested that liquor bottles be hidden from view in restaurants so customers wouldn't be offended and said that she was unaware of any 'quirky' liquor laws, she was flooded with angry e-mails. Newspapers printed dozens of letters to the editor by readers critical of what they saw as evidence of Utah theocracy.

Coray has since said she was merely joking about hiding liquor bottles from view in restaurants.

It was the state liquor board that asked the Legislature to banish alco-pops from grocery stores and limiting their sales to state liquor stores.

"These are targeted at underage drinkers, youth drinkers, primarily young women," said Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is sponsoring the liquor board's bill. "The data suggests where these beverages are more readily available, there is a higher probability of later alcohol abuse and other substance abuse."

The drinks are sold at more than 1,500 stores statewide, many of which are open 24 hours a day. If the proposal is approved, they could only be sold in the state's 36 liquor stores and 100 package agencies in small towns and resorts. They would also be subject to a 46 percent price markup by the state. The flavored malt beverages might not even end up in liquor stores because they're not set up to sell chilled drinks.

Bramble said some lawmakers want even more restrictions.

"There are serious proposals to prohibit sales of cold beer to stop someone from pulling into a convenience store and buying a cold six-pack and consuming it while driving," Bramble said.

He also said someone might try to banish beer to liquor stores.

None of the alcoholic beverages sold in stores exceeds the 4 percent by volume or 3.2 percent by weight limit. Flavored malt beverages are being targeted by Bramble because they contains distilled spirits, not because of the percentage alcohol they contain. He said state law requires distilled spirits to be sold in liquor stores, and that he's merely making technical changes to clarify that alco-pops belong in liquor stores.

If the Legislature were to remove everything with distilled alcohol from stores, it could end up forcing the removal of things like vinegar and mouthwash too, Olsen said.

"Alcohol is alcohol, and there's no difference in the alcohol in a flavored beer versus a non-flavored beer," Olsen said.

Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, said there's no doubt she'll oppose moving alco-pops to liquor stores. She said it doesn't make any sense to make them more difficult for adults to get and that it wouldn't stop minors from drinking. She said lawmakers should focus on educating store clerks and parents so alcohol doesn't get into the hands of minors in the first place.

"It's ridiculous to think that's the only way minors will get alcohol, in a grocery store," she said. "We need to focus on the point of sale."

Many drinkers in Utah are resigned to accept the state's strict stance on booze of any kind.

"It's just the nature of the beast. It's where we live," said Evan Nelson, a Salt Lake City bartender. "There are pluses and minuses to living in a Mormon state. ... We live in a very safe, clean city. The minuses are we live in a very strict, governed state. But that's fine. You can still get drunk in Utah."

However, the perception that it's difficult to get a drink in Utah still exists. The state's tourism industry has spent the past several years trying to eliminate that idea from travelers who are considering vacationing in Colorado and other competitive states.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, acknowledged that sending wine coolers and other flavored fare to liquor stores might not help the state's image.

"We're talking economic development and trying to show people we're being progressive. Maybe that would be something our competitors say," Ray said.

Ray _ a member of the Legislature's conservative caucus _ is among the lawmakers Olsen will have to win over if he wants drinks like Mike's Hard Lemonade and Zima kept in grocery stores.

Ray has no tolerance for underage drinking and frequently tags along with police to bust parties where minors are chugging beers and taking shots. Still, he's not completely sold on the idea of banning alco-pops from convenience and grocery stores.

Ray notes that alcohol sold in grocery stores can be no stronger than 3.2 percent by weight. There are no limits on alcohol content sold in liquor stores. He said that may have an unintended consequence of making it easier for people to get drunk off of alco-pops because they'd be a more potent version if sold in liquor stores.

He said he's also not sure how selling something in a liquor store would keep minors from drinking it, or that the fruity drinks are even a problem.

"I've been out with law enforcement riding along when they busted parties. They find the hard stuff like rum and vodka, which you have to get from a liquor store. Whoever buys it for them, I don't think it's going to matter," he said.

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